Aromatic rice from Bangladesh’s Sylhet region has a lower arsenic content than many other grains -- offering a safer alternative in a country with a huge poisoning burden from rice grown in contaminated water, scientists said on Wednesday.

The Sylheti rice also contained higher levels of the essential nutrients selenium and zinc, according to a study published in the journal Biomedical Spectroscopy and Imaging.

Rice is the main staple in Bangladesh, where a study published in The Lancet in 2010 found that as many as 77 million people out of a population of some 160 million may have been exposed to toxic levels of arsenic in contaminated ground water.

The UN’s World Health Organisation has called the country’s arsenic crisis “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history“.

Under a 1970’s campaign to provide villagers with clean, germ-free water, millions of wells were dug -- unfortunately many of them into soil heavily laced with naturally occurring arsenic.

Chronic exposure to arsenic is linked to cancers of the liver, kidney, bladder and skin, as well as heart disease.

Rice is highly efficient at absorbing arsenic from soil and water, and is reported to be the highest arsenic-containing cereal, said the latest report.

Compared to several other regions of Bangladesh already tested, rice from the greater Sylhet region had lower arsenic levels. The arsenic content dropped even lower in aromatic strains of the grain such as Basmati or Jasmine, than in non-aromatic types.

The region includes areas around the settlements of Sylhet, Moulvibazar and Habiganj and has lower arsenic concentrations in its groundwater, wrote the team from Britain and Libya.

“For someone consuming 500g (1.1 pounds) of non-aromatic or aromatic rice from Sylhet, the daily intake of As (the chemical symbol for arsenic) from consumption of rice would be reduced by approximately 48 percent and 69 percent, respectively, compared to non-aromatic rice from other parts of Bangladesh thus far investigated,” the scientists said.

(This article was published on February 14, 2013)
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